Book Review: The Language Myth

Vyvyan Evans’s The Language Myth is something of a polemic. In the book Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in the UK, takes on the dominant paradigm of twentieth century linguistics, the universal grammar of Noam Chomsky, especially as popularized by Steven Pinker in books like The Language Instinct. Evans’s book is, to say the least, controversial, and I am not fully qualified to judge its merits. (But this being the internet, I’m going to anyway.)

The book is clearly written, engaging, and accessible to those without formal training in linguistics. So those readers of this website without such training should have no problem understanding Evans’s arguments. But the thing that kept nagging me as I read it was that the view presented is very one sided. I am not certain that Evans has accurately described universal grammar and the arguments behind it. It may be that at times Evans is tilting at something of a straw man or taking a since-retracted or out-of-context statement as definitive of the Chomskyan position. (This is just the impression I got from reading it; it may well be that Evans is spot on.)

Much of Evans’s argument hinges on the meaning of instinct and innate and the difficult task of separating that which is present at birth from that which is learned in infancy and earliest childhood. Unlike Chomsky, Evans argues that humans have a variety of cognitive faculties out of which language emerges. While language relies on specific functions of the brain, it is a social construct that is learned, and not a biological module in the brain that is unique to humans. He bases his conclusions on several sub-fields of linguistics. One is animal studies, the fact that all of the cognitive functions that enable language are found in various animal species—although not to the degree and refinement found in humans, and no known animal species has anything close to the sophistication of human language. Another is the study of how children acquire language—and it is this portion of Evans’s book that I find most compelling in refuting Chomskyan universal grammar. (Notably, it is the least polemical of the sections too.) Evans does a superb job of laying out what we know about language acquisition and how it flies in the face of Chomsky’s theory.

Evans also delves into neo-Whorfian theory and linguistic relativism. It is here that I dispute his argument somewhat, or rather a particular failure in his argument, and do so on firmer ground as I have more familiarity with this sub-field of linguistics. Evans does an excellent job of laying out the experimental evidence for neo-Whorfian relativism, such things as studies in color recognition and how it is effected by one’s native language. His description of the experiments is excellent, except in one respect. He omits any discussion of effect size. Many of the neo-Whorfian relativistic effects that have been shown to exist, while real and statistically significant, are very, very small. For example, a person with a name for a particular shade can recognize it faster than one without, but only about 1/100th of a second faster on average. It’s a measurable effect and relevant to our understanding of the basics of cognition, but it probably has no practical effect on how we live our lives. (Those in the medical field make the distinction between statistically significant and clinically significant, and perhaps linguists should take a tip from them.) To be fair, Evans does not state that there is much of a practical effect, but given how the Whorfian hypothesis has been misconstrued in the popular imagination and the mainstream press, leaving out discussion of effect size is a significant omission.

For those interested in the intersection of language and cognition, Evan’s The Language Myth is something of a must-read. But it should be read with the understanding that it presents just one view in a complex argument.

Evans, Vyvyan. The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

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